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Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons: A Reimagining at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse

Outside spring is in the air, but indoors at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons are stunningly reimagined by Max Richter, Bill Barclay and acclaimed puppet company, Gyre & Gimble.

The Winter Selection is almost over at Shakespeare’s Globe and with it ends the artistic directorship of the excellent Emma Rice. Yet in the closing of one season, Rice generously offers us four. In her final commission, Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons: A Reimagining, wintry lows and summery highs abound but not as we classically know it. Originally composed in 1721, Vivaldi’s baroque masterpiece has been reinterpreted, recomposed and reanimated by the British minimalist composer Max Richter for our generation; his reimagining has naturally given the famous violin concerti a new lease of life, transforming an orchestral cycle that, owing to its ubiquity, is in danger of becoming mere lift music. Revitalising the renowned composition alongside Richter is Gyre & Gimble with their powerful puppet theatrics. Together these two forces dare to reimagine Vivaldi’s seasonal structure afresh, revealing the exquisite emotion at its core.

Emotion really is brought to the theatrical and notational surface of this production. Discarding around 75% of Vivaldi’s original, Richter draws out the chosen string parts, enhancing them with a double bass, a harp, a synthesizer and digital audio tracks – a cacophonous chattering and chirruping of birds is audible at one point – to produce an expansive emotional landscape that is as vivid and breath-taking as a natural one. Rearranged by the Globe’s musical director Bill Barclay, Richter’s evocative composition is laden with august feeling; for if Richter’s score scales the kind of epic emotional heights usually heard in film, Barclay’s rearrangement, adapted for six players on baroque instruments, courts that rich, concentrated sensibility reserved for an intimate late Jacobean playhouse, such as the candle-lit Sam Wanamaker. Thus this reimagining comes full circle, regardless of ensemble size, to the spatial origins and original instrumentation of Vivaldi’s work.

Gyre & Gimble’s expert puppetry only serves to heighten feeling, not diminish it, by working with Richter’s composition, string for string. Then again, the company’s extraordinary puppeteering perhaps outdoes Richter as an homage to Vivaldi and his famous emotion-led concerti. Published with four sonnets, one for each season, Le quattro stagioni was rousingly alive with thunder storms, sleeping shepherds, barking dogs, bird song, the barbarous rout of the hunt and rain shower. Words from the sonnets were printed with his musical notes, fusing the imagined with the heard, the visual with the aural. Vivaldi’s seasons, the precursor to nineteenth-century program music, was a narrative of (often violent) climatic extremes. The puppet-led storytelling of Gyre & Gimble thoughtfully and feelingly picks up this narrative strand, rethreading it to Richter’s revival. Hence in their retelling, threatening claps of thunder morph into bomb shells and bullets showering onto a desperate soldier marionette; and rustling leaves and branches, the vital motifs of spring, are literalised with a child marionette attempting to climb a tree. Mining the Le quattro stagioni of all its narrational and emotional potential, Gyre & Gimble have given us The Four Seasons of man, not simply those of sun, storm, sleet and snow.

Using beautifully carved, foam-based, painted marionettes, Gyre & Gimble’s puppeteers tell the story of two strangers meeting, forming a relationship and the eventual birth of their child. Such are the blossoming pleasures of spring, but summer exacts all the frenzy and propulsive urgency of Vivaldi’s 1721 version, as well as Richter’s 2011 rewrite. Racing frantically along an imagined assault course, the paternal marionette now-turned-soldier dodges bullets, falling debris and the invisible though musically palpable onslaught of the enemy. Our man has hit the season of summer, also known as war, and it is the skill and deftness of Gyre & Gimble’s puppeteers that convey the adrenaline-driven fight of his final hour. Falling to his death, this highly charged sequence is juxtaposed with the maternal marionette reading a letter, panic-stricken then frozen by the distressing contents at hand. Such heart-rendering moments, the stories of our time, are delivered to us through the all-too-human movements, gestures and expressions of the puppets and puppeteers.

Inspired by the Japanese tradition of puppetry called Bunraku, where three puppeteers move the arms, legs and face of a single marionette, Gyre & Gimble have created a more embodied form of puppeteering. Omitting the hoods that usually cover a puppeteer’s head in Bunraku, the company’s performers blur the margins between puppet and puppet master, allowing Pinocchio and Geppetto to become one. Facial expressions, sounds and movements that belong to the puppeteers lend themselves to the wood-like puppet, the vulnerable human in miniature weathering storms of a different magnitude. Embodiment is, therefore, the overall experience of the show and, in particular, Gyre & Gimble’s tender, touching puppetry, as music, performer, puppeteer and audience member all participate to believe in the all-too-human plight of the puppet.

The end of a season has certainly come, but with it the beginning of a new one. Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons: A Reimagining offers the blissful showers, ferocious storms, abundant colour and shadows of death readily attributed to spring, summer, autumn and winter; but with the recomposed score of Richter, the rearrangement of Barclay and the restaging of Gyre & Gimble, a timely portrait of man has been painted that both points to and surpasses the seasonal changes of Le quattro stagioni. Rice saved the best ‘til last, and her ‘selection’ is all the better for it.

Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons: A Reimagining is on at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, Shakespeare’s Globe, until Saturday 21st April. For more information see here: http://www.shakespearesglobe.com/whats-on-2018/vivaldis-the-four-seasons